Movie Review – 12 Strong
This film opens with news footage leading up to the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in the United States. It’s a very brief opening, meant to be a very simplistic view of the lead up to that horrible act. A slightly more comprehensive view of the lead up to that attack is in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002). Set to the song, “What a Wonderful World,” Moore starts with the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, which the United States orchestrated. Moore continues with the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état, which was also backed by the U.S., and led to many needless deaths. Moore lists additional coup d’état incidents in South Vietnam, Chile and El Salvador. Moore also sets the stage for what occurred in the 1980’s in Afghanistan.
From 1979 to 1989, the Soviet Union or the Russians fought against insurgent groups in Afghanistan, what Americans would call terrorists during the Iraq War after 2003. Yet, those insurgent groups were funded and trained to fight by way of the United States through CIA actions. Among the people who got that American funding and training was Osama bin Laden. Moore also points out that as a result of the Gulf War and military strikes in other countries, the U.S. has killed tons of innocent people. Some might think he’s trying to condemn his own country, but his overall point is that violence begets more violence and our track record with interfering in foreign countries, attempting to overthrow regimes, particularly in the Middle East hasn’t been good, even prior to 2001.
What this, new movie sets up is the same idea that films like American Sniper (2014) also set up, and that idea is one of revenge. 3,000 Americans died on 9/11, so we need to get revenge, and that’s the head space where 12 Strong mostly lives. While this film does end with one character acknowledging the war isn’t over, as this movie depicts what is only the opening salvo in the War in Afghanistan, currently the longest war ever fought by the United States, the movie does wrap itself in a “we did it” and “now we’re home” feeling. Yes, these particular soldiers go home, but the war would rage on for nearly two decades now for many other soldiers.
The terrorists who are the enemies here are the Taliban, and there is this feeling at the end here that they were defeated, which as of 2017 was certainly not the case. The Taliban had a resurgence, but, beyond that, there is a slight distinction to be made. Yes, the Taliban gave aid and comfort, as it were, to the people who attacked the U.S. on September 11, but the Taliban wasn’t the people who actually attacked us. That was Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden had only been living in Afghanistan for five years. Engaging in a nearly 20-year war in a country for one man who had only lived there for 5 seems fool-hardy, but perhaps not, given the protagonist here casually conflates the Taliban and Al Qaeda as if there is no distinction. For example, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. The Taliban are almost exclusively from Afghanistan.
Chris Hemsworth (Thor and Ghostbusters) stars as Mitch Nelson, a captain in the Army, serving a desk job at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. He’s married and has a daughter. He’s supposed to be taking vacation-time when he sees the events of September 11 on TV and decides to lead a Special Forces team into northern Afghanistan to take back a city and its surrounding area that’s currently controlled by the Taliban. These Taliban are bad people but they’re not the 9/11 attackers. Except, in Nelson’s mind, they are one and the same.
Navid Negahban (Homeland and Mistresses) co-stars as Abdul Rashid Dostum, a general in Afghanistan who is part of an alliance that is fighting the Taliban. Regardless of the Taliban’s connection to Al Qaeda, Dostum has perfectly valid reasons for hating the Taliban, which this movie graphically demonstrates. Dostum knows the Taliban kills women or girls who try to get an education or any kind of equality or rights. Dostum is sick of the Taliban’s oppressive and repressive rule of religious law.
Dostum’s presence in this film is incredible because in a lot of films or TV shows about terrorism, especially Muslim terrorists, the reflex is to depict all Muslims as these strange others who don’t get hardly any breadth of understanding or nuance to their characters. Written by Ted Tally and Peter Craig, adapting the book by Doug Stanton, the screenplay does provide that breadth and that slight nuance for Dostum. It’s also through Dostum that this American revenge theme or faux defensive posture that doesn’t come from recognition of context or history isn’t allowed totally to pervade this film.
It’s only a shame that Dostum doesn’t invoke a little bit more of that context and history. He does reiterate the idea of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires” and the fact that he does speak Russian is indicative of the Soviet empire’s failures in Afghanistan. Yet, what isn’t acknowledged by Nelson is that the Soviet’s failures were in part due to secret American funding and training from which again bin Laden benefited. Essentially, there’s no acknowledgment that we perhaps created the very monster we’re now fighting.
This is big picture stuff though that filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig in his directorial debut doesn’t think about. His main concern seems to be making a modern-day western or at least invoking the iconography of a western, starting with the image of a man charging on horseback. The title of Stanton’s book was in fact Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, so avoiding such an obvious image would probably be next to impossible here. Yet, it wouldn’t be a stretch to compare this film to something like The Magnificent Seven (1960), except this would be called “The Magnificent Twelve.”
The problem becomes juggling all twelve of those characters. The Magnificent Seven did a fairly good job with it, but one would assume that because this film has more characters, its length should be greater. Except, this film has the same running-time as that 1960 picture starring Yul Brynner. Unfortunately, Hemsworth is no Yul Brynner. Obviously, not all the characters are going to get to stand in the spotlight for too long, let alone get any kind of development or fleshing out. The movie can only spotlight a few, if only a couple and focus on them.
Thad Luckinbill (The Young and the Restless) plays one of the 12 soldiers. He’s credited as Vern Michaels but we don’t really learn anything about him. He’s mainly just background. Luckinbill, however, is the producer of this film. He’s a young, good-looking blonde, but he’s made the transition to producing. The last film Luckinbill produced was Only the Brave (2017), which is another adaptation of a real-life story of a group of manly men being heroes. Yet, Only the Brave was about firefighters, not soldiers. That film had 19 characters to juggle, which was way too much.
This film does a better job than Only the Brave with letting us to get to know these guys or at least making them distinguishable from each other to some degree. By the end, Only the Brave only gave us a bunch of indistinguishable, white guys, especially out in the field. Here, there is a bit of diversity. Michael Peña (Crash and Ant-Man) co-stars as Sam Diller, a history teacher who was in jail. Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight and Burning Sands) plays Ben Milo, the solo black soldier who befriends a child soldier. Michael Shannon (Take Shelter and The Shape of Water) also co-stars as Hal Spencer, a married man with a teen son and who is first described as having a killer’s eyes.
Shannon, Rhodes and Peña are all great actors and do well with what little or what much they’re given. It simply would have been nice if some of the other actors were given more, especially some of the more recognizable hunks like Austin Stowell or Geoff Stults who was in Only the Brave. Another actor who’s part of the 12 soldiers is Jack Kesy who plays Charles Jones. Kesy was actually a U.S. Marine. I first saw Kesy in a small film called Morgan (2012) and was impressed by him and hope he gets more starring roles.
Rated R for war violence and language throughout.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 10 mins.